The Best Ramen You’ve Probably Never Had
Ramen is undoubtedly the culinary trend of the moment. Dozens of new dining spots have popped up over the last couple of years dedicated to the Japanese comfort food, and several savvy chefs have included their own unexpected versions on late-night menus around town. Reliable standbys like Sapporo Ramen in Porter Square have been joined by upstarts like Chef Tsuyoshi Nishioka’s Yume Wo Katare on the same block. The cult-like fervor surrounding Uni Sashimi Bar‘s traditional squid and vegetable versions now has competition for hungry night owls, as Sycamore in Newton just announced [via Twitter] its own daily ramen and “Asian soul food” menu served between 9:30-11 p.m.
But Sweet Cheeks Q’s Tiffani Faison, along with chef de cuisine Dan Raia, are quietly making some of the most superb ramen anywhere in Boston. It might seem like a stretch for a barbecue restaurant specializing in fried chicken and Texas-style dry-rubbed brisket to be making competent Asian cuisine, but Faison’s background extends beyond working for Todd English (Bonfire and Riche) and Daniel Boulud (Wynn Las Vegas). The former Top Chef worked under O Ya’s Tim Cushman in 2009 and was responsible for opening some of Monterrey, Mexico’s first Sichuan-style Chinese restaurants.
“The main restaurant in Mexico was called Zao Jun,” says Faison. “I know, it sounds totally random. I worked at a consulting firm in San Francisco called The Culinary Edge, and one of our clients was the premiere restaurant ownership group in Monterrey. We conceptualized the menu and the kitchen and went down there for a couple of months to get them open. Good luck finding any information on them today. I tried recently and it was like a black hole.”
Faison and Raia have been long been fans of slurping quality ramen, sneaking in trips to New York whenever possible to indulge in Ippudo’s “chintan” noodle soup or David Chang’s Americanized interpretations at momofuku noodle bar. The two have also been experimenting with their own inspired takes on Shoyu (soy sauce) and Shio (salt) broths for family meals and charity events like Hot Stove Cool Music.
“I’ve been a ramen fanatic for a really, really long time,” says Faison. “Long before I moved back to Boston [in 2008]. Finally, Dan and I decided winter would be a perfect time to roll this out. So we just decided to pull the trigger to see if the rest of the world liked it as much as we did.”
Starting at the end of January, Sweet Cheeks Q officially entered the crowded ramen landscape with its own version of a traditional Tonkotsu. Instead of boiling pork bones for 12-15 hours—typical of most recipes—Faison first smokes pork and chicken bones, then boils them for 36 hours to make it “really rich and fatty.” The results are slathered over fresh egg-based noodles from Ho Toy Noodles in Chinatown and topped with smoked pork belly and a soft-boiled egg marinated in soy sauce and Chinese black vinegar.
Currently, Sweet Cheeks’ ramen is only served for one hour every week, on Mondays between 9-10 p.m., and the menu is limited to one option, which they change twice a month. “We’ll probably run the same one for a couple of weeks, so if people can’t make it one week, or if we sell out, they can come back and have the opportunity to try it again,” she says.
Besides the debut Tonkotsu offering, Faison has made a vegetarian version, and her favorite to date, a fried chicken ramen topped with sesame fried chicken tenders, house-made bok choy kimchi, sauteed shiitake mushrooms, red and white miso, butter, and a chili paste made with mashed black beans. “It’s a perfect mashup between more traditional Shio chicken ramen and us,” says Faison. “It’s not uncommon to have something fried in ramen in Japan, but to top a traditional ramen with southern fried chicken, I think is very unique.”
March 3 will be the last opportunity to try Sweet Cheeks’ fried chicken ramen, but the popularity of the program has convinced Faison to continue beyond the winter months. Up next will be some seafood-based versions with squid and lobster. After that, anything could happen. “Honestly, there’s no master plan here, we’re just shooting from the hip” says Faison. “When it starts getting really hot outside we might move to something like hand-pulled noodles; something more amenable to sitting outside with ice cold beer. But if there’s something that people really love, like the fried chicken ramen, I’m sure we’ll find a way to bring it back.”